The long mournful wail of the conch shell would startle us awake on certain cold mornings, as the “Fish Man,” the first of the village peddlers arrived. Leisurely blowing through the carapace and cycling past tightly shuttered houses on a rusty, creaking bike while dodging sloshy pot holes, he would shout out his best offer and catch of the day surrounded by far too pungent piles of sweet sea bob shrimp stacked in the carrier.
Most days, my mother would make her usual trip to the nearby La Penitence market to pick up just harvested fruits, vegetables and sea food but occasionally when it rained, she would resort to the itinerant vendor, poking his olfactory offerings to check for sagging signs of age and haggling with him in feigned horror about price and peak condition. Chicken meals averaged once or twice a week, while mutton was far rarer in our Hindu dwellings. I never knew the real names of our sellers, they were all referred to by the ubiquitous title we conferred on them according to their goods, or the otherwise safest generic terms of elder respect, “Aunty” and “Uncle”.
Arriving from Cane Grove, the “Hassar Lady” would slink in, tall, dark and sinuous, graciously swaying as a petulant dancer with her round reed basket balanced perfectly atop her head. We would rush down to watch slender fingers unfurl shining piles of green genip leaves from the jumping, glossy black whiskered forms of “Hoplosternum littorale,” the ancient armoured catfish that is a perennial Guyanese favourite. Being able to breathe through its gills and intestines, the tough oily fish survives in environments of low dissolved oxygen, so each would still be leaping wildly following the long trip to the city from the clear creeks and thick swamps where it was snagged hours before. Sometimes there would be the bony “patwa” and “houri” and as an eager, infrequent delicacy – the delicious nutty “sweet water” shrimps that hid near the high sedges and marsh grass of the hassar’s domain.
We kept away from the main specimens’ sharp fins and pectoral spines as the adults selected the best to be slowly curried in rich coconut milk with young ochroes, saijan pods and perhaps pieces of creamy eddoes, accented with thin mango slices.
In our homes, meals were made fresh and from scratch often three times a day with the occasional loaves of bread fetched hot and fragrant from the closest bakery.
When the blackouts like the list of banned basics grew by the dozens and wheat flour, cheese, butter and other staples disappeared from the small shops where we bought weekly groceries, residents stared in shock at the empty shelves and made do with breakfast substitutes such as rice, ground provisions, scalded cow’s milk, and plantain and corn meal. Nearly every edible was harvested from a Guyana farm or garden, and we practised nationally imposed self-sufficiency and robust recipe innovation without quite accepting why.
My mother would get desperately creative with school lunches so I was never quite sure what I would find in my kit. Egg balls emerged in their golden coat covering a crisp cassava cocoon, as the perfect protein and carbohydrate combination smacked by hot pepper sauce and mouth-watering “sour” relish, matched with homemade fruit juice. Fat breadfruit and plantain chips topped with a seasoned piece of fried snapper might pop up another day and I soon learnt like my poor friends to quickly eat our shared simple servings not in the school canteen, but at the back of an adjoining building.
By the 1980s, Guyana continued its disastrous experiment with cooperative socialism and the long-stagnant economy went into a rapid tailspin with dwindling private enterprise, high petroleum costs and low prices for traditional exports sugar, rice and bauxite. The “Pone Lady” then appeared as the latest blessed incarnation in a long line of enterprising street sellers of our childhood who kept us fed with delectable treats like tamarind balls, guava cheese, mango and fruit syrups, sugar, nut, puffed rice and sesame cakes.
Using an array of root vegetables and pumpkin, the tiny, gray-haired sexagenarian would prepare her sweet mixes in the little shared apartment where she single-handedly cared for her stroke-stricken husband, and then laden with baskets would hurriedly walk to the bakery, which, for a token cost would shove the spicy confections into their wood burning oven besides their own meagre selection.
The New York Times (NYT) would report on Guyana in October 1982: “Long, angry lines of people form in the small hours of the morning at Government stores to purchase such scarce goods as cooking oil and powdered milk. Housewives complain that the prices of available items have soared. At the same time, an extensive black market has cropped up, where those who can afford the enormously inflated prices can satisfy their cravings for items now officially prohibited by or unavailable through the Government.”
The newspaper added: “But President Forbes Burnham and nearly every major Government official take pains to assert that people here are not going hungry. ‘You hear Guyanese say they’re starving?’ said Hamilton Green, Vice President for Agriculture. ‘If you’ve been to Bangladesh you know what starving is. What he (the Guyanese) means is he’s not getting a particular item he’s become used to in the past 10 years.’
Officials hope the shortages will force people to change their consumption habits to favor locally grown and manufactured products – a move they feel is critical to the economy’s long-term survival. For example, the Government has been promoting the use of rice flour to replace wheat flour, even though some economists believe it would be more advantageous to sell the rice and use the proceeds to import wheat. Rice flour, people complain, crumbles when baked into bread and spoils quickly. But President Burnham said it is the ‘most important’ key to nonalignment and independence,” the Times wrote.
I wandered back to my days as a youngster, nearly four decades on, after recently reading once again about our ongoing efforts to attain food self-sufficiency and nutrition security even as agriculture and related agro-manufacturing declines here with slumps in rice and sugar production, and across the region.
Facing an annual food import bill of more than US$4.5B, a 50 percent rise since 2000, coupled with changing tastes and painful preferences for the foreign rather than the indigenous, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is facing a growing crisis of confidence.
According to a report on this “State of Food Insecurity,” the amount will soar to US$8-$10B by 2020 if efforts to correct the imbalance fail. Almost all CARICOM countries import greater than 60 percent of the chow they consume, with half buying over 80 percent. “Only three countries (Belize, Guyana, and Haiti) produce more than 50 percent of their consumption. Processed foods, grains (wheat and corn), and livestock products (meat and dairy) are among the top five food import categories, accounting for over US$1B or approximately 25 percent of annual food imports regionally. In several essential food groups, national production per capita has declined, most notably in the fruits and vegetables category.”
Issued by the Barbados Office of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the 2015 document points to the excessive ingestion of calories particularly related to processed fare. Dietary changes are contributing to some islanders being ranked among the world’s most obese.
The report warns poor choices are behind an alarming “nutrition transition” with concomitant hikes in the prevalence of chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
These reflect a shift away from domestic root crops, tubers, fruits and vegetables in favour of junk that is low in nutrients, energy-dense and high in fats, oils, sweeteners and sodium. This drives the epidemiological changes characterized less by infectious diseases and more by nutrition-related, chronic ailments like diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart-disease and some forms of cancer.
We would do well to recall these findings as Giftland Mall prepares to open its latest FoodMaxx “next generation shopping” supermarket promising an easier life for the working class. Offering vegetables that would normally be imported like lettuces, baby spinach, kale, onions and potatoes, plus fish and meat options, the business plans to sell fully cooked Guyanese and North American meals, and garden produce that is pre-washed, peeled, chopped and ready for the pot.
“This would be the greatest thing that would ever happen to local farmers and the local agricultural industry,” Company President, Roy Beepat told Stabroek News in an upbeat interview. The selection includes ice creams, yogurts, ice flavoured with cranberry, apple or other juices; sausages, bacon and steak.
Alongside the salads, gluten-free and organic sustenance will be old favourites cook-up rice, salt fish and bake, and metemgee.
Competing too will be lasagna, spaghetti, pizzas and pies, a ‘nice selection of pastries” and donuts. Consumers can choose purchasing “Sunday to Sunday meals” and stocking them in their freezers. “So just the way we changed the way Guyanese shopped, we are going to change the way you eat. And we’re going to give you healthy options, we’re not going to give you very bad foods because we care…” investor Beepat promises.
“We can guarantee you that we would be cheaper than the market and have a much different variety but carrying the same Giftland style. So we’re gonna kill you with variety, we’re gonna kill you with quality.”
ID contemplates Bill Rogers’ classic BG Bhagee and his wise words to economize while remembering her first pair of jeans was Beepat’s “Gypsy” from his company Jeans Junction before the move to Barbados in 1980.